Interview with Maestro Steuart Bedford

Steuart Bedford - Photo by Paul MitchellBritish maestro Steuart Bedford’s close collaboration with composer Benjamin Britten has brought him worldwide recognition as an interpreter of Britten’s operatic works. Maestro Bedford debuted at San Diego Opera in 1991 conducting Albert Herring, and returned to conduct Peter Grimes in 2009. This season at SDO, the maestro conducts Richard Strauss’s powerful opera of lust and obsession, Salome.

I had the pleasure and good fortune to work with Maestro Bedford when I was a violinist at the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted Britten’s Death In Venice and Billy Budd, and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. I was happy to renew our association in this interview.


EM: What are you most looking forward to in conducting Salome at San Diego Opera?

SB: I was pleased when Ian (Campbell, SDO General Manager) suggested I conduct my first Salome, but I had to consider carefully. I’ve done a wide variety of operas, but this one is very intense, and requires great concentration. And it has so many notes!

EM: Yes, I can attest to that!

SB: But the opera is a magnificent work, and a wonderful challenge.


EM: You are held in high regard for your interpretations of Mozart operas as well as those of Britten. How would you compare your passion for their operas?

SB: I have equal passion for both. I’ve done all of Ben’s operas and most of Mozart’s. One Mozart opera I feel is missing that I would still like to do is La Clemenza di Tito.

EM: Which Mozart operas have you conducted the most? Which do you think are the most difficult?

SB:  I’ve done Le Nozze di Figaro and Magic Flute the most. I think Don Giovanni, requiring three women and two men virtuosi, and one exceptionally gifted tenor, is the most difficult.


EM: You have been called “One of the last musicians still practicing who worked with Britten.” Does one particular aspect of your collaboration stand out?

Steuart Bedford - Photo by Paul MitchellSB: Working with Ben was unique, a great privilege. In one of my first experiences, playing piano in Turn of the Screw, I gained enormous insight into how to rehearse. We also worked especially closely on Owen Wingrave.


EM: Britten was a frequent visitor to your home when you were a child. Did you regard him with awe, as a family friend, or both?

SB: My mother knew him from singing with English Opera Group, so he was a family friend. We three boys all looked forward to his visits – usually, but not always, with Peter (Pears).


EM: Did your interest in music develop from Britten’s influence?

SB: Music first started at school – we all went to the English public schools back then­ – and it just sort of grew from my piano playing. Conducting came later, at the Royal Academy of Music. Then at Oxford I was an organ scholar. Albert Herring was my conducting debut there in 1964.


EM: Then there was Death In Venice. You really had to take over from the composer. Could you describe the process of participating in this work from its origins?

SB: An extraordinary situation. Ben was having heart surgery and couldn’t come to rehearsals, or the first run of performances, so he played through the score for me on the piano. He was a formidable pianist, very gifted. He could manipulate the instrument in such a way that you almost didn’t miss the orchestra! But he was still very tense, playing an entire piece that had just been written. For me it was the experience of a lifetime, sitting beside this icon, one of the great composers of the time, as he brought his new opera to life… The premiere was to take place at Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh, in June 1973. Later that summer I came to his private cottage in Suffolk to play him the tape of the broadcast. He was in a frail state. Peter was there. I think Ben was even more nervous than I was. ‘Is it all right?’ he asked me. ‘We think it is,’ I replied. It was a unique event. It showed that Ben trusted me. The following year when we recorded the opera, Ben just sat and watched and listened from the back room. He was such a shy person.


EM: Was it different premiering an opera like Death In Venice than, say, one hundred years ago?

SB: One hundred years ago, people were more open to new pieces; operas back then were more harmonically recognizable – until Wagner, though audiences still kept coming to his operas. Now you often find it necessary to re-notate new pieces. Sometimes the writing is totally impractical, too complex, especially for the players, and can be off-putting. Fortunately most composers are willing to make changes.


EM: Is it fair to ask if you have one particular favorite among Britten’s operas?

SB: My favorite would be whatever I’m working on at the moment, which also is true for Mozart. But I have a great fondness for Turn of the Screw, and Peter Grimes I find especially powerful.


Steuart Bedford - Photo by Paul MitchellEM: Do you feel a close association with the cold, majestic North Sea?

SB: Yes. Our family cottage, where we spent summer holidays when I was growing up, was in Snape. I was never that fond of sailing, which was my father’s passion, but I loved the entire experience.


EM: What are you most looking forward to in conducting Salome at San Diego Opera?

SB: I’m delighted to be back at San Diego Opera. It’s my first time conducting this stunning work, and Ian has put together a magnificent cast. The whole experience promises to be marvelous.


EM: Thank you so much, Maestro, for sharing your insights. I’m sure your Salome will be a major “happening,” both for you and for our San Diego Opera audience. Have a wonderful opening!

SB: Thank you.

Pictures by Paul Mitchell

San Diego Opera Salome PromoSteuart Bedford leads the San Diego Opera’s production of Salome from the pit starting January 28th, 2012 with additional performances on January 31st, February 3rd, and 5th. For more information on tickets and the San Diego Opera 2012 International Season visit:

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Maestro Steuart Bedford

  1. Thanks for the kind comments. Look next for my interview with Karen Keltner, who will be conducting the SDO premiere of MOBY-DICK on Feb. 18. Cheers!

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